José García Villa Critical Essays


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Both José García Villa’s admirers and his detractors agree on the essential inwardness of his poetry. For the latter, this is a symptom of narcissism hardly useful to the urgent needs of a newly independent nation. For the former, it is a sign of a transcendent mysticism whose universality should be given priority over nationalism. The poet himself declared that he was not at all interested in externals, “nor in the contemporary scene, but in essence.” His dominant concern was not description but metaphysics, a penetration of the inner maze of humankind’s identity within the entire “mystery of creation.”

The poems themselves, however, often suggest something less than such perfection and therefore something more exciting: purification-in-process, the sensual nature in humans struggling to survive transfiguration. The body strains to avoid emasculation even as the spirit ascends. Consequently, the flesh seems glorified, although not in any ordinary spiritual manner that would diminish the splendor of the sense. Sitwell, in her preface to The American Genius (1951), refers to this paradox as an expression of “absolute sensation,” mingling a “strange luminosity” with a “strange darkness.” Villa himself best epitomized the blinding heat of this attempted fusion by repeatedly adopting the persona/pseudonym Doveglion: a composite Dove-eagle-lion.

Many Voices and Poems by Doveglion

Even the ordinary early poems, replete with piety and puppy love and first gathered in Many Voices, then in Poems by Doveglion, occasionally manage to move the imagination toward the outermost limits of language, a crafted inarticulateness conveying the inexpressible. When he was seventeen, Villa could compare the “nipple” on the coconut with a maiden’s breast, and drink from each; but later lyrics match God and genius, both suffering “The ache of the unfound love” and, in their lonely perfection, left contending for primacy with each other. For Villa, these maturer poems were also the first attempts to create by wordplay, combining “brilliance and/ consecration.” A romantic vocabulary emerges, repeated like a code or incantation: star, wind, birds, roses, tigers, dark parts, the sun, doves, the divine. More experimentally, he inverted phrases and therefore logic, in expectation of profound meaning beyond the rational. He wrote, “Tomorrow is very past/ As yesterday is so future” and “Your profundity is very light./ My lightness is very profound.” Above all, he is trying to “announce me”: “I am most of all, most.” The defiant rebel who was his own cause begins to be apparent in these poems published in the Philippines.

Have Come, Am Here

Even as Many Voices and Poems by Doveglion were going to press, however, his experiments had taken a quantum leap forward. When Sylvia Townsend Warner came to New York in 1939 as Britain’s delegate to the Third Congress of American Writers, she was astounded by the verses being prepared for Have Come, Am Here, which included the best of Villa’s previous work and much more. It was two years later that the book reached the hands of Sitwell, whose eyes fell on the poem “My most. My most. O my lost!,” a brief litany of the protagonist’s “terrible Accost” with God; she was moved by its “ineffable beauty.” The volume is a mixture of adoring love lyrics and joyous, combative rivalry with God. To convey their “strange luminosity,” she felt compelled to make comparisons with the religious ecstasies of William Blake and Jakob Boehme, as well as with such other mystics as Saint Catherine of Genoa and Meister Eckhart.

It was a matter of special pride for Villa to note that in six of his poems, he introduced a wholly new method of rhyming which he called “reversed consonance.” As he explained it, “a rhyme for near would be run, green, reign,” with the initial n-r combination reversed in each instance. Such a rhyme, of course, is visible if the reader has been forewarned, but even then the ear can hardly notice the event. Still, the device is one more variation among Villa’s many attempts, through decreation and reassemblage, to penetrate the energy fields of convention and release explosive forces from the very “depths of Being,” as Sitwell puts it. Much more interesting, however, and more successful than reversed consonance in satisfying this quest for fire is the inexorable forward force of both his love lyrics and his “divine poems.” Occasionally these poems are indistinguishable from one another because the protagonist addresses both his beloved and his God with the same possessive, mastering rhetoric: “Between God’s eyelashes I look at you,/ Contend with the Lord to love you. . . .” At times in compulsive narcissism, the protagonist even treats them as mirrors for himself, then briefly relents, guiltily considering himself to be Lucifer or Judas. Such interplays of ambiguity are made inevitable by the poems’ brevity and density, the constant ellipses and startling juxtapositions: oranges and giraffes, pigeons and watermelons, yellow strawberries, “pink monks eating blue raisins,” the crucified Christ as peacock, the wind shining and sun blowing.

Sometimes in these poems, one can recognize the synesthesia of the French Symbolists, Cummings’s curtailments of standard grammar, Blakean nature as divine emblems, or the equivalent of cubist/Surrealist transformations of reality. Mostly, however, Villa was an original. One senses in him a compelling inner necessity to prove that purity proceeds from the proper combination of what are normally considered impurities. His was the rebel’s revenge against mediocrity, a Promethean ascent-in-force to regain godhead. Fellow poet Rolando Tinio, in Brown Heritage (1967), says that Villa “speaks of God becoming Man and concludes that Man has become God.” Villa’s countrymen grudgingly accepted his preeminence abroad. Villa, however, always thought of himself as too exceptional to be a...

(The entire section is 2500 words.)